The big news for historic preservationists in 2017 was the successful outcome of a 41 year battle to designate a spectacular piece of architecture known as the IRT Powerhouse as a New York City Landmark. Once considered a threatened historic resource, the Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously in December to add this to last year’s list of 14 structures throughout the five boros to gain designation. Here is the full list and map for 2017:
It was 1901 and the City Beautiful Movement was already in full swing, bringing monumental and inspiring structures to neighborhoods that would promote civic pride, morality and social order. Stanford White, of McKim, Mead and White, a partner of one of the most prominent architectural firms of that era, was brought in to design what would become a large facility to house the equipment needed to generate electricity for New York City’s first underground subway system. Two years earlier, White had received tremendous public accolades for his ambitious design of the original Madison Square Garden (demolished in 1925). He had already developed a solid reputation for his work on many public buildings, churches and monuments. One of his most notable projects was the Washington Square Arch, built in 1889, however he was best known as one of the original “starchitects”, designing homes for many of the rich and famous of the “Gilded Age”.
Massive in size, the footprint for the IRT Powerhouse would ultimately take up an entire block of land between 58th and 59th Street and 11th and 12th Avenues (in the neighborhood known at the time as San Juan Hill). In 1902, the sprawling Eastman and Co slaughterhouse was torn down to make way for the new building. Finally, in 1904 the facility began generating electricity for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company subway line, providing service to 28 subway stations from City Hall to 145th Street.
At peak operation, over 25,000 tons of coal was burned annually, creating a steady stream of smoke and layers of soot, which took a terrible toll on the environment. In 1959, Consolidated Edison purchased the building, installed a new and efficient boiler system and converted the plant to gas and oil. Con Edison also began systematically dismantling the original façade of the building, removing key architectural elements and the smokestacks lining the top of the building. Architects representing Con Edison would later appear before the Landmark Preservation Committee to attempt to argue that the building should no longer be a candidate for designation since the structure had too many significant changes. Fortunately, the committee was able to see beyond that argument and thankfully after a long fought out battle finally moved to protect and preserve one of Stanford White’s few remaining masterpieces in Manhattan.
Click here for a very interesting PBS show about Stanford White’s life: https://www.wliw.org/programs/treasures-of-new-york/treasures-new-york-stanford-white-full/